Bring Down the Sky

I’ve found myself feeling a little apocalyptic lately.

As you may have read somewhere (if not everywhere) recently, last month saw a nasty decline in comic sales, one of the worst year-over-year drops in a while. It wasn’t as bad as that time everyone simultaneously snapped awake like they’d been under a spell, looked over at their five polybagged copies of The Death of Superman, said, “What are we doing with our lives?” and started moving everything into Beanie Babies, but it was enough of a dip for everyone to sit up and take notice.

The blogaristas quickly cited any number of logical explanations for why the August decrease was a fluke. August is always slow; there aren’t any blockbuster events being published this summer; everyone is just saving up to buy extra copies of Spider-Man: Back in Quack in a couple of weeks. Nothing to see here. Return to your homes.

There is a part of me—the bulk of me, in fact—that hopes the blogaristas are right. That part of me sees news like this and thinks, “Oh, no. People I like could lose work. Books I like could get canceled. Companies I like could cease to be. I hope it’s all business as usual again next month. I’d better buy two copies of every book in the store next week and scatter them on bus benches around town like Johnny Appleseed, just to be safe.” That part of me loves Wednesdays and fears change.

There is another part of me, though. There is a growing, already-not-small part of me who hears the sky is falling and the plug’s coming out of the wall and hisses, “Good! Good. Finally, the end.”

That part of me probably sounds like an a-hole or Voldemort or something, but here’s what he would tell you: I’ve been reading comics as an adult for ten years now, and I’ve spent at least half of that time hearing that Comics Are Dyyyying. For years, I have listened to people gravely intone that The End is Nigh. The big publishers sell impenetrable insiders-only crossovers that are too inbred to ever thrive outside of their current market. The product can only be purchased in creepy little specialty shops run by Jack Black from High Fidelity, if not Kevin Spacey from Se7en. The diehard fans are aging, and no new fans are replacing them, anywhere, no matter how many surly teens appear to be squatting in that one aisle at your Borders.

Single issues are going away. It’s all trades and entropy and piracy, piracy, piracy. Things needs to change drastically, and fast, they said six years ago before continuing to do things the same way every day after that.

I have heard all of this for years, heard it until I never wanted to hear it again. Then I heard it eight thousand additional times. I got tired of hearing it, and then I got tired of saying how tired I was of hearing it, and then I got tired of saying that. Everything that needed to change five years ago still needs to change, but it never does. At this point, it seems like some of the publishers would rather die.

Well, to quote a Dickens character near to my heart: If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Everyone else would like to get on with it.

Years ago, when the major publishers became aware of the threat of comics piracy, they took a lesson from the disastrous impact file sharing had on the music industry and tackled the issue head-on, proactively launching ambitious digital initiatives that were keenly attuned to the way young consumers use media todayHA HA HA ha ha, sorry, I really thought I was going to get through that without breaking. They did nothing. They sternly asked everyone to stop downloading comics and then raised the cover price another dollar. The technology for digital comics has existed for a decade and today there have been, what, three day-and-date digital releases? Maybe fewer? And our expectations are so worn down that we act like these table scraps are a miracle. “Wow! One book from DC’s entire line is available online the week it’s printed? Quick, does anybody know where to get ticker tape?”

I love reading comics, and I love people who make comics, but I see these things and that dark side of me whispers, “This is an industry that deserves to be in trouble. If your dog ran like this, you’d take it behind the barn and shoot it.”

Is $4.00 really a sane price for a 30-page periodical with ads in it that you’re trying to get new readers to buy? With objective distance, does that business model sound like it deserves to continue to exist? I know there are a lot of legitimate costs involved in creating a couple dozen works of art every single month (that’s what comic pages are, after all) and I don’t want to diminish that in any way. I just, no matter how hard I try, cannot stop thinking about the fact that I can get twenty-seven hundred (2700) pages of Newsweek for $20. Have you ever counted the names in a given issue of that? I understand it costs a lot to produce a quality comic and pay an art team a fair wage, but could it possibly cost more than having a Beijing bureau?

Probably. What do I know? I’m just a spectator with access to a keyboard. I have no insight into the actual inner workings of publishing. The report on August sales simply made me realize that after years of gloom and doom, I may have reached my saturation point. Mr. Darwin, here are the reins; wake me when we get there.

I know that there have been innovations in the last year or two, with a number of companies stepping up to fill the digital void (ahem). Everybody has their own app now, a shiny wireless wonder for instantaneously delivering you three year old comics. Digital Marvel issues can even be purchased for your desktop now. Big changes appear to be on the horizon. Big changes have been on the horizon for years, but no matter how far you travel you never reach the horizon, do you? It feels like everyone is waiting for the next thing to happen, everyone is watching everyone else to see if the next thing reveals itself, and no one is actually trying to do the next thing. Am I just wearing my dead-rose-colored glasses again?

They say “mainstream” comics are all about the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo. I think the industry is a little bit too much like the stories in that regard. That hissing side of me can’t help thinking the only way we’ll get the new thing is if the old thing finally goes ahead and falls apart. Your favorite heroes are safely in the hands of multi-billion dollar corporations; Batman isn’t going away as long as people want to read about him. Something amazing will rise from the ashes of the existing industry. From a creative standpoint, bankruptcy was the best thing that ever happened to Marvel; they took some bold chances because they had nothing left to lose. Who knows what necessity could give birth to next? I’ve heard so many ominous warnings about the cataclysm facing comics, I’ve reached the point where I wish it would just go ahead and happen.


Jim Mroczkowski has no goddamned idea what he is talking about, but he talks about it a lot, especially on Twitter.


  1. I just don’t know what I’m doing anymore with any form of entertainment besides comics. Nothing seems to have quite the hold on me that comics do. I haven’t watched The Office in about a year, same for 30 Rock. I have no idea what is happening on House right now. I know there are episodes on Hulu, and I know I could easily catch up via the internet on all these shows but I just constantly forget. But if a Wednesday goes by and I miss my trip to the comic shop, you better believe I’ll be there on Thursday. I don’t do this for anything else but comics which begs the question, Do Luke Cage and Jessica Jones really entertain me more than Jim and Pam?

    The end of comics would probably leave me more time to watch these shows or watch movies I’ve been meaning to see but I wouldn’t trade Amazing Spider-Man every month for the best TV Show on Earth. Hopefully both companies can get their acts together for our sake.

  2. Great article.

    At times, I have to admit that I share some of your perverse desires for the industry to just die already, if that’s what it’s going to do. Then I toggle back to a more reasonable disposition where I start thinking about how damn unique and great the comics medium is, and I bemoan that fact that so few people, in the big picture, will ever get to experience how great it is. Whether it’s a huge oversized trade I paid a bundle for, a digital comic delivered instantly to my laptop screen, or a single issue that I waited two months for and paid like 20 cents a page for…comics are just so damn worthwhile, fun and artistic in so many different ways.

    I think what it comes down to is that the life and death of the American comics industry is tied to the life and death of our demographic. We’ve heard about the death of the American comics industry for the last 15 years. Know what else I personally have heard a lot about in those years? The decline of American culture in general. Or at least the decline "pop culture", to put a happy face on it. Basically, the comics industry seems to slowly decline just as the rest of the popular media we love has declined. There will be exceptions along the way, blockbusters and artistic breakthroughs to give us a lot of pleasure and hope. But in the long run, if you look at the trends–just to bring it back to comics–the industry really only survives on the backs, attention spans, and paychecks of the 25-45-year-olds reading it RIGHT NOW. If these people stopped going to comic shops, the industry would alter so radically that it’d basically die.

    Basically, we’ve been feeling like the comic industry has been slowly dying because we ourselves, our cultural tentpoles and financial assets, are slowly dying. And nothing is really replacing it. The next generation is not really picking up the batton. I’m just going to throw that hypothesis out there.

    The transition to digital has to be managed carefully so that the comic shops don’t decline prematurely. I look at it in terms of what happened in the mid-’90s, with the abrupt death of the newstand market and the funny business of Marvel’s going exclusive to HeroesWorld. It made distribution a problem. Comic shops didn’t know what to order, had to deal with a new distributor, and were at the time still reeling from the implosion of the speculator boom. So what happened? They under-ordered or didn’t order certain titles at all. In the meantime comics fans 1) couldn’t get anything on the newsstands anymore, and 2) were reeling from the gimmicks of the ’90s. Add distribution difficulties to this atmosphere and it was a disaster for the industry. The transition toward digital has to be managed more successfully or else similar problems will crop up and aliennate fans. And, yes, one of the aspects of this is that the transition can’t be too slow.

  3. DIGITAL COMICS. I’m telling ya, Disney and Warner Bros need to push the heck out of Marvel and DC digital comics, that’s the one and only key to getting new readers on board—and advertise their film properties. If they don’t push the heck out of this fast and make a huge PR splash, I don’t think even digital comics will really attract the attention from potential readers that the companies need.

  4. I dunno how I would feel about digital comics, mostly since I’m a huge book guy (meaning I like actually holding something). That said, I recently looked at my pull list and realized that a full third of it (5/15 books) are trade-only, with a couple that could easily go that way. I don’t think I (consciously) are doing this because of rising cover prices, but I do catch myself a lot dropping books off of my DCBS order when I see the price total creeping up

  5. My problem is that a majority of what the big 2 sells just doesn’t get me excited.  It feels like the creators aren’t that passionate about their products and therefore neither am I.  At Marvel, I love Thor – The Might Avenger, the 3 Hickman books, and that’s about it.  At DC, there’s not much other than Morrison’s work and the GL books (I liked the Super books until Straczynski).  But for the most part, I’m just tired of the Continuity game.  It’s as if most books are being written to propel continuity (or undo it) rather than to tell THE BEST POSSIBLE STORY.

  6. I always laugh when I flip open my comic book and the ad that is displayed is one for childrens sneakers which were designed with some famous character in mind. When I see those types of products I cannot help but think if these ads are targeted towards the young person who will go nag his mother for these shoes or if it is more geared towards the young father and giving him some insight in some cool shoes he could buy for his son :). 

    Anyway, I totally agree with you. I am from the Netherlands and grew up with the more European style comics, which were often bigger (page size) and thicker (amount of pages). They weren’t monthly but each title had a steady stream of releases (and back then I did not really care about ongoing story lines). These books had a coverprice similar of the comics today and I think their coverprice now is equal to max double the price of a comic book (15 years have passed, possibly more). I have been back into comics and now the more adult heavy storyline driven ones (can’t get into most of the superhero ones, too much history and too much variation in quality imo). I love most of the Vertigo series, the creator owned series from IDW and Image and all in all a good part of my monthly fun-budget is going into comics. However, every month once I get my delivery (the whole comic book wednesday part is non existent here unless I want to travel 3+ hours in each direction, which is long here :)), I cannot help but think why I am spending an insane amount of money on a comic book that I read in 10 minutes or less. I put it in a box thinking that one day I can get someone else interested in them or maybe reread the classic run of x series. The result is that I have been cutting into my pull list and just removing everything that I am not totally crazy about atm. First ones to go were nearly all the superhero comics I did try to get into. Each month I would open up the new issues and realized I had forgotten almost everything that happened before and sometimes even wondered if I had even read the previous issue. This is not the case with some of the other series (like fe. Chew, Unwritten or Locke & Key), but it is saying something. In preperation for the Walking Dead tv show I have started reading the hardcovers I have on my shelf, however since I had to go out of town for a few days I loaded up my iPad with the issues of the remaining 4 hc I own from a not so legal source. The story was just as gripping, be it a little smaller in size, not as heavy and I could take a lot more of it with me on the trip. I’d say digital comics are a very good idea and if all the series I follow would be available to me when they release I would get them. Especially if they would price them at something below 1.50. I can’t see why they would not do it. Many creators are tweeting about how they are proofreading or checking their comics on digital devices like the ipad so in a sense these things are completely digital before they ever see print. And even in the rare cases where artists are actually painting and not finalizing their work in photoshop, every printer in the world will probably start from a digital source these days. So why not put them out there on or comixology. 

    Anyway long story short, I think in order to survive they need to drive down the sticker price and take a good look at the current superhero lines. The creator owned work is a bit more grown up in its content, but if I compare the Amazing Spider-man or Batman comics I read now with the cartoons and tvshows I grew up with then you cannot say that the target demographic has changed and the stories have changed as well. If they want to catch kids then a book like ultimate spider-man would be far better than amazing spider-man currently.
    As for me, I’m just hoping for a move to digital, this would make publishing for indies even easier since they do not need the costly printing process to make their products available and it allows for new business models. Spotify which is the first big music subscription service in Europe is getting rave reviews and a lot of subscribers and they offer a huge catalog of music for the equivalent of 5 dollars a month and if you want some extra’s (like fe. mobile devices (iphone, android)) you pay 10 dollars a month. Netflix in the states is similar for movies. Why not get something like this for comics. I would pay 10 dollars a month for unlimited "streaming" access to comics, hell I might even pay a lot more if the experience and catalog is worth it. 

  7. Amen.

    Nothing has hit this point home for me so far as hard asnews of the  the cryptic announcement coming from Warner Bros. later this week. When I saw that article my immediatereaction was terror that DC Comics might be phased out. My next reaction was surprise and disapointment at the notion that this was actually a credible scenario that could actually happen.

    I’m with you, Jimski. I’m tired of people crying when Scott Pilgrim doesn’t make #4 and I’m tired of people bracing for a meteor to hit the comics industry. And as you say, these characters aren’t going anywhere, and comics as a creative medium isn’t going anywhere. What might disapear are specialty stores (which would be a legitimate shame), $3.99 price tags and the impenetrable wall built around comics to keep any Outworlders from discovering our precious treasures. And y’know what, all told? I think I can live with that.

  8. I’m fairly new into comics, been reading now for about a year.  I’m obsessed into reading the back issues for continuity purposes, so I’ve only been buying trades and HCs to catch up on the current story lines.  I’m a novel reader, so I love the way these books look on the shelf.

    This all being said, I would jump on new stuff if it were all done digitally (I also read a lot of Vertigo, Image, and Boom books that don’t have a lot of continuity).  Aside from comics, I’m also a computer nerd so I would jump at the chance to buy an iPod or Android tablet to read newly published issues.  I wouldn’t however buy paper issues – I don’t have a place to physically store them and I’m not into bag/board/longboxing paper.

    If the industry can put issues out either same day or a week delayed for digital distribution I would jump on board (the $1.99 price point is also very important, but should also be lowered to at least match the per-issue price in a trade or HC).  Apps like comixology with panel view reading are great (but also having the ability to view the entire page is nice) and one never has to worry about it running out of stock or even going to the store (I don’t right now anyways, I buy everything through Amazon or IST).

    Digital is the future, I realize the slow pace by publishers to methodically figure out the market prior to jumping in full force but things need to pick up.  Embrace Android, create an app to service that market segment and eventual tablets.  The buyers are there, the devices are starting to spread (just look at how profitable the kindle has been for Amazon) and now we need the content.

  9.  "I understand it costs a lot to produce a quality comic and pay an art team a fair wage, but could it possibly cost more than having a Beijing bureau?"  <—-This is friggin awesome dude!

  10. I’m ready for the "industry" to die. And when I mean industry, I mean Marvel/DC.

  11. I’m sure either Josh, Conor, or Ron wrote recently about the growth of the total market: 

    Comics (and graphic novels) as a creative medium aren’t stagnant. The DIRECT MARKET is. Maybe the superhero genre is boring and maybe it isn’t. I find interesting things to read, but I’m selective about what I spend money on. What’s changed in the industry is the rapid growth of TPB and graphic novel sales (interestingly, six of the top ten titles sold in bookstores in 2008 were MANGA, BTW).

    For that matter, the rise in price of single issues hasn’t affected the direct market much in the last 13 years even (according to the data in the source cited above). The revenue stream of the direct market has increased slightly while the sales of single issues have declined slightly. Overall the direct market remains flat.

    The sky isn’t falling … our DM fishbowls have just grown more myopic. 

  12. The Beijing Bureau Quote made me laugh at my desk.  

    Direct Market is such a bizarre business model. Multi Billion Dollar corporations being enslaved to the whims of thousands of independent little shops. How does that make sense? There is still room for print comics sales growth…its just not in the DM comic shop. I was pretty excited to see a chain like Hastings get on board with weekly sales, but a larger drop in the big box store market would be awesome. 

    Comic production is a bit inefficient. 6-10 people to produce one little comic each month. Every other creative industry has folded outdated jobs into the creative/production process. Back in the day as a graphic designer, i’d have to collaborate with typesetters, color separators, pre-press, paste up artists…all those jobs replaced with software and put under my hat. I’d love to see creators figure out a way to do more jobs. I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again, The creative team behind Chew really is a streamlined operation. Love to see more teams like that. 

  13. There is nothing quite like a good comic.  When I finished reading something that’s truly fantastic I always go, "Fuck yeah, I love comics".  There is no other medium that will make me do that.  I’ll so I loved that movie, or I that was a great episode but it never causes me to have a generalized reaction to the medium.  That being said, as a business, it doesn’t seem to make much sense and they seem very slow to make the changes they need to survive.  Technology changes things.  Makes things easier, cheaper, better.  Not taking advantage of those things is almost criminal.  I’ve seen boards where people are pirating comics and there’s a good deal of demand for digital comics.  I understand that there are jobs that will be lost but, that’s going to happen anyway with the way things are going, so it’s really for the best if they innovate rather than shrivel up and die (which is what they’v been doing).

  14. Counter Example:

    I never bought any comics in my LIFE! The ones a friend of mine had in the 90ies(Spawn and Witchblade) were overpriced and stupid, taste- and styleless power/sex fantasies and frankly, I was way above that in a kinda snotty way.

    Torrent PIRACY is what GOT me INTO comics!

    Civil War to be precise. Some 2 months later I downloaded Watchmen and it looked really bad on the screen, so I ordered the TPB on Amazon. Never again I pirated an issue that I really wanted to read and am a big waiting-for-the-trade collector now.

    Why? Because Comics – just as books – are way more awesome on paper! And I want to get the most awesomeny awesomeness out of my stories possible. I barely watch any TV-series anymore(they just can’t beat Y, Swamp Thing, Amazing Spider-man, Secret Six and so on). Took me almost a year to get down to watch Inglorious Basterds and 2 months till after the series finished to watch the final season of Lost!

  15. Also, I agree with the sentiment that’s been stated before: I want my monthlies digital, and if you put out an amazing work that I must own, I want it in trade.  I want to be able to set something in my friends hand and say "Read This", or "I love this work".

    And as Jim stated, the creepy comic shop is surely what keeps most out of joining this industry.  In my town there is 1 shop.  It’s small, it looks very crappy, and other than the "new wall" it’s piles of boxes, and the workers are unfriendly and generally acknowledgeable about the product. 

    Amazon is my comic store.  Them or InStockTrades. 

  16. Another great article. By the way, "Beijing Bureau" would be a great name for a band.

  17. Good article, Paul.

    The companies are really killing themselves with the prices on single issues. It’s tough enough on us, the long time readers. Let alone totally alienating to new readers. Do you have any idea how silly $4 for 30 pages sounds to the average person? Especially went compared to the price of a trade. I can’t think of anyone I know who isn’t big into comics who would ever choose single issues over a trade.

    I understand that there is work that goes into this issues. But it’s no different than other publications, like Paul said. Just look at the average magazine and the # of people credited. I think comic fans enable the companies too much. They constantly make excuses about how much paper stock costs, etc, etc. Yes, these ultimately are works of art. But a lot of comics are made pretty fast and just thrown out there.

    The industry needs to make up their mind. Either make buying in issues much more reasonable. Or just do away with it and stick to trades.

  18. Thanks, but Jim wrote this one!

  19. This was lightly touched on in the letter column a couple weeks ago:
    Sounds like you pretty much agree with Corey and not Josh for the most part, especially when it comes to cost and trying to bring in new readers.

  20. "I wish it would just go ahead and happen?" It already did, Jim. I killed it 20 minutes ago.

  21. Jimski again showing up as the all-star of the iFanboy writing staff.  Great stuff, brother.

  22. "Thanks, but Jim wrote this one!"

    WHOOPS!!! Sorry Jim! 

    Now I have to go back and re-read it in Jimski’s voice. Hope it comes off as good as when it was Paul’s soothing voice. I guess that’s a compliment for Paul. I read a good article on here and by default attribute it to him. My Bad, Jim!